Updated: October 15, 2021 7:32:32 am
In the few minutes that William Shatner left the planet, he didn’t “discover new life and new civilisations” nor did he “boldly go where no one has gone before”. But the 90-year-old Canadian actor, best known for playing Captain James Tiberius Kirk in the original Star Trek series and then reprising the role in multiple shows and movies over the decades, was visibly overjoyed after his 11-minute trip on New Shepard, the rocket run by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.
Shatner’s character has been a staple of science fiction, inspiring generations of people — including, reportedly, a young Bezos — to take an interest in science, engineering and astrophysics. And despite the glaring differences between the fictional USS Enterprise and New Shepard, the unmitigated joy that Shatner expressed is probably the best advertisement for the Amazon founder’s commercial space venture: “What you have given me,” Shatner reportedly told Bezos after the flight, “is the most profound experience possible”. Shatner is the oldest person to have travelled beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
In the future that Star Trek envisioned, the boundaries between nation-states had dissolved, there was no poverty, all people were treated with respect and space exploration was not a business venture. The current competition for cornering the commercial space flight market and the space programme is far less exhilarating. It seems to be dominated — and diminished — by the cynical concerns of profit and the strategic interests of great powers. The high hopes put in place by yesteryear’s futurists have been left by the wayside, in ways big and small. The way Jeff Bezos is seen interrupting nonagenarian Shatner as he talked of his once-in-a-lifetime experience is not incidental. No, the space race today certainly isn’t Star Trek. And yet, not even the best fiction can match the moment of enchantment that New Shepard brought to Shatner.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 15, 2021 under the title ‘Captain Kirk flies again’.
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